Henry James famously said “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
Kindness is a fundamental virtue, one that is as basic to our preschool and kindergarten classrooms as counting to ten and learning our ABCs. And yet, it always seems to take us by surprise. A “pay it forward” chain at a coffee shop in Winnipeg in 2012 made national headlines and other feel-good stories about kindness similarly go viral. At my workplace in December, a wellness theme of “Kindness is Contagious” elicited a surprising amount of discussion and engagement. It seems kindness is very basic and yet always noteworthy.
As one of the VIA character traits, Kindness is understood as an altruistic orientation that involves empathy, moral reasoning, and social responsibility. It is a tangible expression of a generalized humanitarian love.
For Christians, Kindness is one of Paul’s list of “the fruit of the Spirit.” The golden rule of Christian Kindness is the actual Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s been interesting to see some of the discussion about this in recent years. Some have proposed that the Golden Rule doesn’t go far enough — that it assumes we know what’s best for others and doesn’t take into account differences in values, tastes, and culture. Proponents of the so-called Platinum Rule argue instead that it should be “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” There is much to be said for this criticism, but I think that ultimately if we take the Golden Rule seriously it is self correcting: I want my values, tastes, and culture to be taken into account, so I want to do that for others as well. (The Platinum Rule also incorrectly assumes that everyone wants to be treated well.) At the end of the day, provided both the positive intention of the Golden Rule and the respect for the other of the Platinum Rule are in play, they amount to much the same thing. The key word in the Golden Rule and in Kindness more generally is “Do.” It’s not about having nice thoughts, but about doing right by ourselves, those closest to us, and those in our community and world writ large.
The absence of kindness is indifference, a simple lack of care or thought for the welfare of others. The opposite of kindness is cruelty, actively harming others. It’s one thing — and clearly not the good fruit of the Christian life — not to care about the plight of refugees or people in our communities who don’t have access to adequate housing or food; it’s quite another to go that further step to cruelty: to actively harm refugees, or to enact policies that punish homelessness. Yet both are pathologies of Kindness and they are connected inasmuch as the cruel are often empowered and emboldened by the indifference of others towards marginalized groups. While it’s easiest to see these pathologies in the big social issues of the day, the same principles work closer to home too. In fact, when we did the ‘kindness board’ at work in December, what seemed to resonate most with people was the part advocating kindness to oneself. As much as we might rightly decry the self-indulgence and narcissism within our culture, many people still feel unworthy of basic kindness and are indifferent or actively cruel towards themselves. The mantra of “treat yourself like a toddler” has been life changing for a lot of people, as scary as it might be to think that people need a reminder to look after their own basic needs like using the washroom, eating and drinking, and sleeping. Similarly, many of us talk to ourselves in far crueler ways than we’d ever talk to other people: “You’re fat.” “That was dumb.” “You’re so stupid.” “You’ll never be good enough.” Kindness begins at home, and even more so in our own hearts and minds.
The pathology of the excess of Kindness is intrusiveness, stepping in to ‘help’ where no help is needed or wanted, or assuming you know what’s best for others without regard for what they want. This is a pathology of poor boundaries, a failure to respect where you — your ideas, opinions, and wants — end and the other begins.
So, with all this in mind, how might we increase the Kindness in our own characters? Here are a few simple ideas:
- Treat yourself like a toddler — ask yourself regularly “Am I hungry?” “Am I thirsty?” “Do I need to use the washroom?” “Do I need a nap?”
- Set some time aside to do something that recharges you.
- Say ‘no’ when you need to, without guilt.
Friends and family:
- Ask more powerful questions at the dinner table (e.g., instead of the perfunctory ‘How was your day?’ try something like ‘What was the best thing that happened today?’).
- Ask those close to you what they want from you when they are struggling, rather than just assuming and jumping in.
- Ask nicely. Say please and thank you. Express gratitude.
- Take a friend out for dinner at your expense.
- Perform a random act of kindness each day.
- Be kind in your communications at work.
- If you are able, donate to charities.
- Lean how to be a good ally for marginalized communities.